April 24, 2024 | Cities 1.5 Podcast

Jennie King on threats to climate action and its likely effects on elections around the world

ISD’s Director of Climate Research and Policy, Jennie King, was a guest on Cities 1.5 Podcast earlier this month, discussing threats to climate action, the actors behind climate mis- and disinformation, improving communication standards and the likely impact all of this will have on election campaigns worldwide this year.  

In conversation with host David Miller, Jennie begins by highlighting the role of the fossil fuel industry which is often “highly professionalised… and operating through a vast network of proxy entities” such as PR agencies, traditional advertising, and sponsored academics. Jennie acknowledges that it is a “very important ecosystem and set of actors” but is “by no means the only game in town.”   

Jennie outlines the three other major actors “who are opposing climate action not only for financial reasons… but they’re also now doing it for ideological reasons.” The first is hostile states, who use climate as a means to create division, weaponising international efforts such as the transition to net zero and processes like COP. The second consists in far-right political parties that portray the climate agenda “as a symbol of everything that is wrong about society and all of the ways that people are being disempowered.” Jennie notes that pockets of society receptive to this rhetoric are largely neither “extremist or even conspiracists, but they have lived through this unique period of crisis” that has eroded public trust in institutions, on which climate action depends to be effective.   

The final set of actors covered by Jennie, which is a central focus of ISD climate research, lies in the “attention economy.” The distinguishing factor for this third group is that they “don’t necessarily have any consistent or coherent views about the climate crisis or about climate action” but are focused on increasing engagement for ad profit. “They want to harvest your attention, your likes, your clicks, your comments, your shares, your hate retweets, your screenshots, your debates, and as a result, they are trying to post content that is as incendiary and divisive as possible, and they have unfortunately correctly identified that climate is now one of those topics that really whips people up into a frenzy…” she said, stressing that climate is now a contentious public issue, and as predicted a few years ago, has become central to ‘culture war’ topics, resulting in it being placed alongside other issues such as “civil rights or sexual and reproductive health or electoral integrity.”  

But she shares some good and bad news on crafting a path through all the information. There are proactive interventions and I really don’t want to create the impression amongst those listening to this that all is lost and that we should get kind of paralyzed in inaction as a result. At the same time, it is worth being aware that, in some cases, the deck is stacked against those who are trying to communicate climate science, or who are trying to broker conversations around climate action, and part of that is to do with the business model of the Internet as it currently stands. So, let me start with the kind of bad news and then segue into the good news.” On the bad news, social media platforms continue to prioritise a business model selling “advertising space and that is grounded in how much time you are spending browsing your news feeds and engaging with content. So, in order for that to be a successful model, they need to keep people online as much as possible… Over time what that has created is this dynamic where the most hateful incendiary, clickbaity, unsubstantiated kind of information is constantly being prioritized by algorithms… It shows you that just kind of emphasizes the point that mis- and disinformation is constantly outperforming credible, evidence-based, factual content, and that is a structural problem that we need to solve through tech regulation, through a very different philosophy of how we want the Internet to operate and how we want social media to operate. “

On the good news, she goes over the positive results inoculation, or preparing people for what they may encounter online versus debunking mis- and disinformation that has gone viral, initiatives are having among users. “It kind of inspires that critical thinking impulse… some of the companies are actually working with the climate sector on those inoculation initiatives.” She mentions that users become overwhelmed with the amount of conspiracies they encounter, but she recommends to attempt to find the recurring “consistent” themes and connective tissue that runs between all of those pieces of information. “The things that unite – ‘climate lockdown‘ and the ‘Great Reset‘ and the discrediting of renewables and pushback on the farming industry, they often come down to these unifying themes of power and agency and people having control over their lives and their future and feeling very disempowered. And, those should be absolutely central to any form of strategic communications that you are trying to do about decarbonization and the future of the net-zero agenda,” she said. “Mis- and disinformation around climate and the actors that are spreading that kind of content have been incredibly successful at resting the narrative away from scientific expertise and making all of these themes part of the opposition platform, but actually they should be very easy arguments for the climate sector to make. You know, the climate justice agenda is absolutely one of redistributed power and enabling communities to thrive, and actually taking all of the benefits of a net-zero transition through to people’s everyday lives in an economic sense, in a public health sense, in a well-being sense, and the kind of tragedy of the current situation for me is that this should be an easy fight for the climate sector, right? All of those kinds of narratives should be ones that climate policy-makers feel very confident in making, and yet, somehow, we’ve ended up in this very surreal situation where opposing the climate agenda is seen as a way of empowering individuals.”

When asked about climate disinformation trends in 2024, a year where two-thirds of the world will have participated in elections, Jennie notes that 2024 is a “pivotal juncture both for democracy and climate and the way those two things interact.” Within the European political context, several parties have been “anchoring their position in this idea that the EU Green Deal is being used to subjugate people.” Equally, the US has witnessed Republican candidates reverting to climate denialism. Overall, Jennie states that “it is likely to be a central part of a lot of election campaigning, and potentially resonant with the public.”  

Jennie, lastly, acknowledges that debate around solutions are completely valid, yet the current weaponisation of the topic interferes with any constructive conversation from arising. There is a lot still to be figured out about the pace of the transition, the nature and scale, how it will manifest within individual communities and countries, and that public dialogue is completely essential in order to build a public mandate and to feel a sense of buy-in, not just from voters, but from all citizens, and for people to really feel motivated and enthusiastic and inspired by that. But, at the moment, we are not able to have any of those absolutely critical public debates because we’re sort of stuck in the anti-chamber of conversation in fighting all of these wild and unsubstantiated claims… and that’s the problem.”

The episode from 2 April is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Jennie’s interview begins at 04:40.

Cities 1.5 is a podcast produced by the University of Toronto Press. A transcript of the interview is available in the Journal of City Climate Policy and Economy.